Putting to sea always made him pensive. He stood, hands clasped behind his back, and peered out across the waves. He always felt that the ocean was like a great reservoir of thought – a boundless store of undulating contemplation dividing the continents that were characterized by action. That calming effect was only temporary, though: at some point, one must return to the world of roads, cities, mountains, and trees. He was drawing close to that point.
There was a knock at the cabin door.
“Come,” he said.
Mr. Wood’s face appeared in the doorway.
“A moment of your time, Captain?”
“Of course, Mr. Wood.” He gestured to one of his seats. “Please.”
They both sat, placing their elbows on the desk.
“Captain, the men are growing restless.”
“I imagine so.”
“This mission was a risky one from the beginning -”
“Captain, we’ve already asked a lot from these men. They knew the risks when they departed under your command, but even so, you can expect that they will reach their limit at some point. I fear that point will be soon. The farther we go, the farther our return trip will be.”
“I understand,” he said. “I have been feeling it myself.”
Mr. Wood nodded, visibly relieved. “I’m not saying we should turn back yet, Captain, but I think we should start to consider it.”
He stood and looked out the window again, his left hand on the bulwark, his right in his pocket.
“I think we’re close now,” he said. “I can feel it in my bones. We are long past the halfway point, Mr. Wood. A return trip would take longer than pressing forward.”
“Captain, I came on this voyage because I am an adventurer. I am with you until the end. The men, however, will not be, and you cannot find a new continent with a mutiny on your hands.”
“Have they spoken of mutiny?”
“You know how to deal with those who do.”
“Yes, Captain. Of course. I can only do so much, though. To keep the worst from happening, I think we should set a limit to this voyage. Tell the men that we will continue for a certain number of days, and if we don’t see land, we’ll turn back. I’m not saying we should turn back now – I’m just saying we should decide when that point would be.”
“Mr. Wood, I have made careful calculations.”
“I know you have, Captain.”
“I would not have come on this voyage if I had not been sure. We are almost there. Turning back now would be the most foolish thing imaginable.”
“Captain, even if you’re right, which I believe you are, there is no guarantee that the men believe that.”
“Then convince them. I explained it to everyone before we embarked. This voyage is based on verifiable mathematical evidence, not a baseless dream. There is land out there, and we have almost reached it.”
“As I said, Captain, I believe in you, but -”
There was a cry from outside, and it was echoed by various voices.
“Land! Land! We’ve reached land!”
Without another word, he was on his feet and heading out the door, spyglass in hand.
“Where is it?”
Following the directions of the sailor in the crow’s nest, he raised the lens of the spyglass in the eye and moved it across the horizon. It appeared before him as a faint blue bump above the water.
“You know what to do, Mr. Wood.”
They immediately adjusted their heading.
He smiled faintly. He had known. Yes, he had known. The world would remember the name of Victor Dawnman.
The initial voyage to the New Continent had been expressly for the purpose of proving it was possible. Legends of the land had been around for centuries, but many believed that the legends were items of fantasy only. Dawnman had gone with his ship to prove them wrong. Upon landing there, he and his men had found lush jungles and great beasts the likes of which had never been seen. They had also found the remains of a few villages, but none of these were inhabited. There were only empty houses, with bones littering the ground between them. What they had found, though, was gold. Even though the villages had seemingly been home to the poor, necklaces, bracelets, and idols of gold were relatively plentiful – and, curiously, had been left behind in the aftermath of the battles that had apparently taken place. After fifteen days of exploration, they had returned to Kosandra without having contacted any of the native people.
Now, two years later, Dawnman was back. His single ship had been replaced by a dozen frigates. Rather than foolhardy adventurers, the men under his command now were highly trained marines. Only a few souls from the original voyage remained under his command. One of these was the faithful Mr. Wood – now Captain Wood, commanding one of the frigates.
They again found the point that had originally become visible two years before – a peninsula with a mountain at its center. After sighting it, though, they continued south until they spotted a sizable settlement on the shore. Upon seeing that this settlement was also empty, Admiral Dawnman ordered his men to disembark.
After landing on the piers in their longboats, they marched into the city. Unlike the other settlements, this place had streets paved with gravel. The streets were still littered with bones, though. Marching in silence, Dawnman could feel the anxiety that was slowly beginning to build among his men. Even for a seasoned soldier, the eeriness of such a place could be infectious.
Dawnman had the soldiers halt, and he turned to look at them. In the water behind them, longboats from the other frigates made their way toward the piers.
“If this city is anything like the ones found on the previous voyage, it is most likely full of gold. Please fan out and search all of the buildings, gathering any valuables you may find. You will all receive equal shares of the treasure when we return to Kosandra. If you find anything particularly interesting – such as written records or maps – bring them back here to me.”
The sergeant dismissed the soldiers, and they spread in every direction. The mention of gold had broken the sense of forboding, and they hurried about in an excited effort to find treasure.
When the next group of men arrived, Dawnman dismissed them in a similar fashion. Before long, Wood was at his side, looking around quietly.
“This place creeps me out even more than the villages from last time.”
“I can’t say for sure. It’s just different.”
Captain Forger – who commanded one of the other frigates – came to stand beside Wood.
“This is not some random border settlement subject to barbarian raids. Look at the architecture of these buildings,” said Forger. “Look at the layout of the streets. This was a major metropolitan area once.”
A shout rang out from a nearby building, and some soldiers emerged carrying a golden idol. It was a grotesque face with round eyes, a protruding tongue, and a headpiece shaped like the rays of the sun.
“Whatever happened to the villages, it seems to have affected the entire region.”
“I never understood why we never found full skeletons,” said Wood. “Or why an invading army would leave valuables like this.”
“We never found full skeletons because wolves and vultures probably devoured the bodies. As for the valuables, we are not dealing with your average invading army,” said Dawnman. “I’m not even sure that we’re dealing with humans.”
Wood’s eyes went wide. Forger blinked.
“I’m not talking about demons or any other such nonsense. These people died of disease. No one came to take their possessions after they died because they assumed the land was cursed.”
“You said you thought it was a civil war that caused this,” said Forger.
“I knew that talk of disease would keep this mission from happening. Whatever disease killed these people, though, it’s long gone. There are no sick individuals or rotting corpses left to spread disease. But all the same, I would prefer that you two not mention this to the men. These people died in a civil war.”
“I have no problem with that explanation, Admiral,” said Forger. Dawnman watched him as he strode over to a pile of bones beside one of the buildings. Forger stooped down and took hold of something. He pulled up on it, and as the grass and dirt slid away, Dawnman saw that he was holding a long, curved blade. It was very much corroded, but it appeared to be made of bronze.
“After all,” said Forger, “one does not take up arms against a disease.”
“That’s right,” said Wood. “The bones in the villages were intermingled with weapons as well. Perhaps…you were correct in your initial assumption of civil war?”
“Perhaps,” said Dawnman.
“Do you think it’s possible that we could stumble upon an aggressive force here?”
“Of course it’s possible,” said Dawnman. “But that is why we have an army with modern weaponry.”
They set up tents on the main thoroughfare of the city. As the sun set, cool winds whipped through the rows of canvas like the whispers of the dead. In his tent, Dawnman stood looking down at a table. A scroll was spread across it, with rocks and lanterns holding down the corners. It was clearly a map, and judging by the shape of the land mass on it, it seemed to be a map of the region. Dawnman of course did not understand the language, but knowing the words that were written would not have helped very much anyway. The peninsula to the north was clearly depicted, as were the two river mouths they had noted on their way to the city. The city itself appeared on the map as a medium-sized building. Farther inland, though, a large building was depicted – a building from which lines rayed out in all directions. Dawnman stared at this area of the map quite intently.
He heard footsteps approaching. Turning, he saw Forger at the tent opening.
“Admiral,” said Forger, saluting. “Here to report that the army is sufficiently resupplied. The locals apparently cultivated a collection of fruit trees.”
“Very good, Captain.”
“Admiral, I heard there was a map?”
“You heard correctly. Come have a look.”
Forger stepped over and peered down at it.
“Interesting looking piece,” said Forger. He touched it with his fingertips. “It’s fairly well preserved, considering the humidity. Makes me think this city has not been dead for very long. Less than a decade.”
“Yes,” said Dawnman.
Forger put his finger on the point of the map that had drawn Dawnman’s attention. “So I assume that this would be the capital of whatever government ruled here.”
“I suppose so.”
“And this would be the next point on our journey?”
“And what do you think we’ll find there?”
“I have no idea,” said Dawnman. “More dust and bones, perhaps. Or an entire metropolis full of people.”
“What if we find a hotbed of disease?”
“I will keep my men safe,” said Dawnman.
“And what if we find a bustling metropolis? What will we do then?”
“That depends on how strong they are. We may set up trade relations with them. They certainly have plenty of gold, and I’m sure we have plenty of things they do not. Firearms. Medicines. Tools and machinery.”
“And if they aren’t strong?”
“If they lack political and social stability – which seems likely, judging by what we have seen so far – we will give it to them.”
“Very good, Admiral,” said Forger. “Now that we are resupplied, I will have my men ready to go first thing in the morning.”
“Thank you, Captain Forger. Your competence is appreciated.”
Forger had begun to leave, but then stopped, his hand on the ridgepole.
“Admiral, if I might ask…”
“I know what we are looking for here. As a nation, that is. But what are you looking for, sir?”
Dawnman looked down at the map again, contemplating for a moment. He raised his eyes again to meet Forger’s gaze.
“Glory, Captain Forger. Glory. For some of us, it is the only source of eternal life.”
“Very good, Admiral. I bid you a good night.”
“Good night, Captain.” Dawnman watched him go. “Captain!”
“What are you looking for, Captain?”
“I am merely doing my duty, sir. I leave the goals to be determined by my superiors.”
The march inland was a grueling one. Unlike the dry, temperate climate of Kosandra, the air in this place was hot and wet. Giant trees stretched upward on both sides of the road, trying to hide the line of gravel like scar tissue over a wound. Insects hovered over the army, repeatedly descending upon sweat-laden necks to inflict their vicious bites.
“No wonder there’s no one left here,” said Wood. “These bugs sucked the life out of every one of them.”
Around noon of the third day, they crested a rise – and stopped very suddenly in their tracks. In the valley below them, the capital stood as a neat square cut out of the jungle. A monstrous black pyramid stood at its center, with four smaller pyramids surrounding it. A palace stood between two of these, and a mixture of other buildings was sprawled out in every direction.
“It’s empty as well,” said Forger.
“How do you know?” asked Wood.
Dawnman snapped at his aide, who quickly produced his spyglass. He scanned the city for a few moments.
“No, someone is there,” he said. “I can see figures moving down the main thoroughfare. Several of them.”
“Several, Admiral?” asked Forger. “A million people could live in a city of this size.”
“This is true,” said Dawnman. “Whoever they are, they probably have an interesting story to tell us.” He signaled for the men to press on.
As they marched through the city, there was only the sound of the wind, the footsteps of men and horses, and a few birds crying in the distance. The buildings were made of stone, wood, and cement, and they were painted in various shades of green, purple, and blue. Instead of gravel, the street on which they marched was made of neatly placed pieces of broad, flat stone.
“Shall we have the men fan out, Admiral?” asked Wood.
“No,” replied Dawnman. “Not yet. We go to the central palace first.”
“Notice anything strange, Captain Wood?” asked Forger.
“Are you referring to the lack of people, Captain?”
“No, Admiral. How is this city different from the others we’ve seen?”
“There are no bones,” said Wood.
“No bones. No weapons. But still every bit as quiet as the others.”
“So far,” said Dawnman.
They marched on, passing from the mottled outer sectors to a more orderly and organized district. Reaching a canal, they crossed a stone bridge wide enough for two large wagons to pass each other. As they reached the far side of the canal, Dawnman held up a hand to signal his men to stop. There, just ahead, he could see one of the figures he had spotted from the rise. The figure approached the army with a slow, unwavering gait. Dawnman and the others looked at it closely, not saying a word.
As the figure continued to approach, gasps of surprise and fear filled the air. Not knowing what to do or say, Dawnman only blinked, wondering if he were going insane.
It was an automaton. A single piece of coarsely cut wood made up its torso, and its arms and legs were connected with moving wooden joints. A blank human-like face was carved into its wooden “head”, and it pressed onward like some sort of giddy juggernaut, sweeping the ground before it with a broom.
It passed within reach of Dawnman – who was still dumbfounded – and continued on toward the files of soldiers behind him. The men – many of them experienced fighters – broke their ranks and recoiled in fear. With the army separating before it, the automaton marched merrily on.
“Magic!” came the cry. “This place is cursed!”
Upon seeing his men suddenly falling into this disarray, Dawnman came to his senses. Drawing his saber, he chased after the wooden figure. Upon catching up to it, he took his blade and sliced horizontally through the thin piece of wood that was supposed to be the contraption’s neck. The head fell to the ground like fruit in the wind, and the figure stopped. It turned around, and Dawnman flinched, taking a step backward. When it stooped down to recover its severed head, he quickly regained his resolve and lopped off its arms as well. He followed this up with a slice through its thin legs, sending it crashing to the ground in a lifeless heap.
Dawnman sheathed his blade. As he turned to his men, his eyes became wild, but his jaw was resolute.
“And who is afraid of our new enemy?”
“Return to your ranks, men.”
A sergeant repeated his order, and they continued forward. The army continued onward down the thoroughfare and toward the heart of the city. They encountered multiple automatons, all of them similarly sweeping the street before them, and Dawnman commanded his men to deal with them in the same fashion as before. He did not see them as a direct threat, but he wanted his men to stop being afraid of them.
The pyramids and palace lay in a vast open space at the center of the city. This open area was intermittently punctuated by fountains and carefully groomed trees and shrubs. His eyes on some of these plants, Forger sidled up to be close to Dawnman.
“Admiral, this place has been taken care of,” he said.
“By those wooden men, I imagine.”
“Yes, I imagine so.”
The question burned in Forger’s mind: Don’t you think there could be something sinister waiting for us in the palace? But he knew that Dawnman would not be deterred – and that Dawnman would probably be irritated at him for fostering such apprehension among the men.
The palace arose before them. Its architecture was unlike anything they were accustomed to in Kosandra: everything was composed of trapezoidal shapes. As they drew closer, the decorative writing on its face and on the obelisks lining the passage of entry became visible Behind the palace, the largest of the pyramids loomed like a jealous father.
Reaching the front steps, Dawnman dismounted. As he walked up toward the mammoth wooden doors, the only sounds to be heard were his steps and the thumping of his saber scabbard against his thigh. He stood and looked at the doors dispassionately, quickly taking note of the stylized writing that he did not understand. Reaching forth with his hands, he pushed on one of the doors with all his might. As the door began to creak open, Wood signaled for some of the men to help the admiral. Pushing together, they managed to get the doors open. Forger then summoned two files of men to follow him, and they raced up the steps and stood in the open doorway behind the others, weapons ready.
Walking forward, Dawnman took in his surroundings. He was in an expansive central hall, with huge banners hanging from the ceiling on both sides of the central walkway. There were no lamps or torches, but diagonal beams of sunlight, entering from openings above, criss-crossed before him. On the far end of the hall, he could see a throne on an elevated platform. It was out of the light, but he could make out a figure seated there.
“Greetings! My name is Admiral Victor Dawnman. I come on behalf of Queen Valoria of Kosandra.”
Silence. He took another step forward, looking more closely at the shadows around him.
“We have come with the intent to set up diplomatic relations.” He paused. He could barely make out the dark shapes of what seemed to be statues lining the walls on both sides. He continued forward. “I know you probably do not speak my language, but I am sure we can…”
He could see the throne a bit more clearly now. The figure in it was not a man or a woman at all, but another skeleton. This one, however, was still largely intact, held together by the rigid gray pall of what had once been fine clothing. Behind the throne, two statues stood, each with a hand on the back of it. They were fine pieces of work: it seemed that they had each been cut out of a single piece of marble. They were both completely naked – one male, the other female. Dawnman came to stand within reach of the skeleton king. His hand resting on the hilt of his saber, he looked carefully at this fallen monarch – and at the wards that looked blankly on.
At first, he had expected to find a blade resting between the king’s ribs. This was not the case, but there was a hole in his garment, exactly where the heart would have been. Of course, after so many years of exposure and decomposing, such a hole could have resulted from any number of postmortem events. The most probable cause was obvious, though. Curiously, the king’s crown – apparently having fallen from his head – lay between his femurs.
Dawnman turned his attention to the statues. They had been sculpted with great detail, showing even the most minute muscle and bone contours. They each stood at least a full head taller than he or almost any other man of Kosandra, and their bodies clearly reflected the ideals of human beauty as seen by this fallen society. He touched the female statue on the abdomen, just between the ribs and pelvis. He had almost expected to feel soft, white flesh. But it was, of course, polished stone.
“Killed on the throne, Admiral?” asked Forger. He and some of the others were coming into the hall now. They walked carefully, eyeing the dark figures along the walls.
“Yes. So it would seem.”
“I suppose there are worse ways of going, Admiral.”
Dawnman stood in front of the throne once more, looking down at the crown that had remained untarnished by the passing of its owner.
“What makes death so pleasant that we are all left grinning?”
Forger turned to look at him. “Admiral?”
With that, Dawnman picked up the crown and held it up into the diagonal stream of sunlight. Its jewels and etchings glittered.
“We think that we are the masters of our riches, but they dictate our actions – and finally outlive us.”
“Admiral, shall I dispatch the men into the city?”
Dawnman said nothing. He only studied the crown. He looked once again at the skeleton, and then back at the crown. He then lifted it and placed it upon his head.
“My emperor,” came the voices from behind. Dawnman spun around. The two statues now stood in different poses, their hands no longer on the throne. Two pairs of white eyes centered on him. Dawnman opened his mouth to speak, but ended up saying nothing.
“My emperor,” said the marble woman. “What do you wish of us?”
“I wish…for you to answer a question.” Dawnman held tightly to the hilt of his saber, willing himself not to take a step backward.
“How…do you know my language?”
“We do not know any other language,” said the marble man.
“Very good. Well, now you can tell me what happened here.”
“We do not understand,” said the woman.
“What happened to all of my subjects? Why is the city empty?”
“First, there was a civil war,” she said. “The city was being swept by insurrection. Then the Howlers came.”
Dawnman blinked. “Howlers?”
“Yes, my emperor.”
“What are these…Howlers?”
“Beasts,” said the man.
“And they killed everyone in the city?”
“Most of them, Emperor.”
“Are these Howlers still around?”
“We do not know, Emperor. We have been sleeping.”
“Did the Howlers come in the daytime or at night?”
“At night, Emperor,” said the woman.
“Very good. Thank you for your service.”
Dawnman turned and moved toward Forger, who was standing warily several paces away.
“Order the men to fan out and search the city as they did before. But tell them to return here by nightfall.”
“My emperor,” came the woman’s voice from behind. Dawnman turned to regard her. Her naked form was suddenly very alluring, now that she moved about like a real woman.
“My emperor, might we ask a question?”
“Who are we?”
Dawnman hesitated. “You are my subjects.”
“How did we become so, Emperor?”
“I will tell you when you are ready.”
“Very good, Emperor.”
Dawnman turned again to leave. He walked briskly toward the great door, eyeing the dark figures that stood against the walls.
“Admiral, we must leave this place,” said Forger.
“And we shall,” said Dawnman, still inspecting the crown in his hands.
“There is no question that dark and unholy powers are at play here. Things beyond our understanding. We must leave as soon as possible.” Wood said nothing, but he was hanging around close by, along with the other captains.
Dawnman looked up at the sun descending into red. “It’s already too late to get out of here by nightfall. We will leave tomorrow.”
“Admiral, we are highly concerned about the safety of our men.”
“And of yourselves, no doubt.”
“Of course, Admiral. We did come on this expedition realizing that it would be dangerous, but that does not mean that we should have to face dangers that are entirely avoidable.”
“There is a reason I have chosen to camp beside the palace,” said Dawnman. “If we encounter any kind of danger tonight, we will take a defensive position inside. We will leave tomorrow.”
The captains saluted and left. As Forger walked away, he thought about asking why they were not simply camping inside the palace. However, the answer to that question was obvious: Dawnman was afraid.
The night had come and gone without incident. No howling. No beasts or ghosts. No disappearances. As the rising sun colored the horizon, Forger began to relax. After all, it had been a number of years since this city’s destruction. The Howlers were probably long gone.
The men had seen less success than they had expected in searching the city on the previous day. It seemed that, unlike the other settlements they had seen, the capital had actually been subject to some level of looting. Wood asked Forger what he thought of this fact.
“I would have expected the capital to be even richer than the outlying settlements,” said Wood.
“Me too,” replied Forger. “I think I know what happened, though.”
“As the statues said, there was a civil war first. That probably led to looting in the capital, but before the civil war could spread to the outlying areas, the Howlers came.”
“Do you think the civil war and the Howlers were linked?”
“Probably. The only way of knowing would be to ask the statues, and I think the admiral is hesitant to speak with them.”
Wood nodded. He stooped down on his haunches to turn the spit on which they were roasting a bird. When Admiral Dawnman suddenly came around the corner of the tent, they both stood at attention and saluted.
“Good morning,” said Dawnman, returning the salute. “Captain Steel asked for permission to search the pyramids. When I said yes, some of the other captains wanted to search the pyramids as well. They will be leaving shortly. I need one of you to stay with your men and hold our position here.”
“I will stay, Admiral,” said Wood.
“Admiral,” said Forger, “how long do we have?”
“As long as it takes. I don’t think we are in any danger here. You are assigned to the central temple with Captain Steel.”
Forger saluted and went to marshal his men.
The central pyramid was a massive structure indeed, and whatever treasures had been hidden inside, they were sealed up nicely: there was no visible entrance. Captain Steel came up with an idea of how to find it, though: he had the men pour buckets of water – taken from the city’s canal system – around the base of the structure. When they found what seemed to be a leak into a chamber, they had a good idea of where the entrance was. Even after they had discovered this, though, they still had a huge piece of stone to deal with. The answer to this problem came when the men discovered what seemed to have been a stonecutting workshop nearby. Returning with chisels and hammers, they began to chip and pound away at the rock. As some worked with the tools, others cleared away the resulting rubble.
Forger looked up at the position of the sun. “This will take all day,” he said to Captain Steel.
“Yes, but imagine what we might find in such a structure.”
It did take all day. The sun was beginning to set when the men had finally cut through enough rock to make an opening. Captain Steel lit up a torch and ventured into the darkness first, his saber drawn. Forger wondered what good Captain Steel would expect a sword to be against a danger that could live underground for years. Several men crowded in behind Steel, and Forger lit up a torch and followed them. The passage through which they walked was very narrow, causing them to turn their shoulders to the side as they walked. After about thirty paces, Steel rounded a corner. A moment later, he let out a cry of amazement. Forger and the rest of the men hurried to see.
They emerged into a chamber filled with riches. Gold, silver, pearls, and gems were everywhere. There were chests full of treasure, along with statues, decorative candle stands, furniture, and other such items. A sarcophagus lay on an ornamental table in the middle of the chamber, and a circle of skeletons lay neatly on the floor around it.
Deterred only for a moment by the scene of ancient death, the men immediately set about taking the treasures from the tomb. Forger, however, was still in the entrance to the tomb area. His eyes went to the figures standing against the walls. They were chimaera statues – having human bodies and animal heads – and they stood clutching weapons. One of them moved.
“Get out!” shouted Forger, leaping backward. A stone warrior stepped in front of the opening, cutting off the men inside. “It’s a trap!”
After backing up a few steps, Forger charged at the figure in front of him. He threw all of his weight against its back – and only slightly rocked it forward. He shouted for help, and several men came in after him. Inside the chamber, the sound of combat ensued, with shouts, rifle shots, and the sound of metal colliding with metal and stone. At Forger’s command, three men crowded around him, and together, they pushed against the back of the stone figure with all of their might. It took a step forward to regain its balance – and then pivoted around to face them. Forger and the men fell backward as the blade of a bronze halberd came slicing forward, barely missing them.
“Go!” he said to the men around him. They all ran back toward the entrance. Three men who had been inside the chamber managed to squeeze past the distracted sentry, and they scrambled back toward the entrance as well.
Forger pulled himself to the surface, short of breath.
“Form up!” he cried. “Rifles, form up!”
Fifty men with wide eyes suddenly hefted their rifles and faced the aperture. As he listened, a set of footsteps pounded their way toward the entrance. A stone man with the head of an eagle arose from the shadow, a bronze scimitar in hand.
“Fire!” shouted Forger. Fifty shots rang out, and much of the stone warrior’s chest was pulverized. It fell backward into the hole.
The men went through the much-practiced routine of adding powder to their muskets, placing balls and packing inside, and ramming the balls and packing down into the muzzles of their weapons with rods. The eagle head began to emerge again.
“Take aim!” said Forger. “Fire!”
The giant stumbled back again. However, Forger could hear more coming from behind.
“Grenades!” he shouted. “I need grenades!”
One of his men produced a cluster of the explosives: black metal balls with fuses, like a sort of deadly fruit. He took two in each hand, used a torch to light them, and tossed them down into the hole.
“Clear out!” he said. The order was unnecessary, though, as his men had already moved safely away from the opening. The resulting explosion blew pieces of coarse granite and finely crafted marble into the air, followed by a billow of dust and smoke. His ears ringing, Forger was quickly on his feet again. He peered down inside, but saw no movement.
Soldiers were coming from every direction. Captain Wood arrived first with his men.
“What in the world is going on?” asked Wood.
“Captain Steel is dead,” said Forger.
“Admiral, considering what has happened, I strongly advise that we leave as soon as possible. We do not understand this place or the powers that continue to influence it. We also have more areas on the map in need of exploration.”
Dawnman drummed his fingers on the arms of the throne. He had apparently removed the skeleton of its old master.
“Captain, for the sake of the servants here, I suggest that you refer to me as Emperor.”
Forger said nothing.
“The loss of Captain Steel is quite unfortunate. He was a capable leader. However, I am confident that, as with the servants here, the temple guards will listen to my orders. As for the map, we have already reached the most important point we could have reached. We are in the capital.”
“So we are not leaving tomorrow, Admiral?”
Dawnman looked up at the stone woman.
“Not quite that soon, Captain. I believe that a protracted presence here could be beneficial to our mission.”
He turned and left without another word. As he emerged from the palace, fists clenched, he ran into Captain Wood.
“Captain Forger,” said Wood, “I would like to show you something my men and I found today.”
Wood took Forger back into the palace and down one of the corridors. The walls of the corridors were covered in glyphs of humans and animals that looked on eerily in the torchlight. After a bit of walking, Wood stopped and pointed at the wall.
“What do you think that’s all about?”
There were many people pictured in various acts. Some of these were farmers working in fields, while others were artisans making pottery and clothing. Some were seated on thrones. The paintings then gave progressive images of these people morphing into wolf-like beasts. These beasts were then portrayed attacking and eating humans.
“I think this is about the Howlers,” said Forger.
“That’s what I thought too,” said Wood. “Let’s hope that we’re wrong – or at least that these monsters aren’t around anymore.”
Forger continued studying the paintings. He saw pictures of large warriors slaying the monsters. “It looks like these stone giants were created to fight the Howlers,” said Forger.
“And tomb raiders,” said Wood.
“And tomb raiders,” agreed Forger.
“The stone giants are still here, so I imagine they were successful?”
“It seems more likely that they ran out of people to protect. Man-eating monsters probably aren’t very interested in chewing on stone.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Hope they don’t come tonight and try to find a way of convincing the admiral to leave tomorrow.”
“Have any ideas on how to do that?”
Forger looked closely at the wall’s depiction of Howlers ripping a man’s body to pieces.
“I’m afraid not.”
The sound echoed through the city’s expansive central district. It began with one voice, but then dozens more took up the call. As soon as the sound was heard, hundreds of men were on their feet. They knew what it was.
From the roof of the palace, Forger looked down at the plaza and canal area below. Thankfully, the moon was bright. He took up a spyglass and focused it on the shapes he saw moving near the bridge. He was not sure about their size, but they were definitely large. Their hairy backs were arched like a cat’s when it is backed into a corner, and they raced around in circles, prodding and snapping at each other. When they howled, they stopped, turned their noses upward, and put their entire bodies into it as if it were something difficult and painful. It certainly sounded so: each howl initially sounded like the pained moan of a dying man, then climbed gradually into a piercing scream, followed by a wail that was something between the horse and bird of prey.
Below, all of the men were taking up their positions within the throne room, barring the doors and preparing for a fight. Forger could hear the other captains barking orders, but he did not feel the need to go down with them just yet. Anyway, they knew what to do.
Forger continued watching the Howlers gather. As their numbers grew, their cries became more intense. Each laborious howl was a fierce punctuation to the continuous cackle that was now audible. The creatures continued to circle and bait each other, working themselves into a frenzy.
Forger turned to the men behind him. They were standing by the two artillery pieces that the army had brought. It had been a pain to get those cannons onto the roof. He had not been sure that the Howlers would attack just yet, but with the admiral’s intent to stay indefinitely, he had felt that placing artillery in such a way would be a good idea. Apparently, he had been right.
“Get ready,” he said. The idea was to fire when the greatest number of the beasts were gathered together – but before they decided to come charging across the bridge, of course. He had previously considered blowing the bridges, but he did not wish to become stranded, and he assumed that it was probably easier for the beasts to cross the canal than for his army to do so.
As he spoke, he spied a white figure walking toward him. In the bright moonlight, against the dark and mossy stone of the rooftop, she seemed even more brilliant than she had been in the throne room. What was she doing here?
She came to stand right in front of him, looking him in the eyes.
“You are Captain, yes?”
“Captain Forger. Thank you for your service.”
“And thank you for yours.”
“Captain, the Howlers are going to kill all of you.”
Forger turned his eyes back to the Howlers. Clearly, this conversation was going nowhere.
“Fire at will, men,” he said, covering his ears. They immediately lit their fuses, and two shells sailed across the plaza and the canal and landed among the beasts. With his spyglass, Forger saw stone, dirt, and body parts flying in all directions. The howling immediately took on a new tone, and the seething herd came bounding across the bridge. The cannons would not be able to hit them now, as they were moving too quickly.
“Grenades!” said Forger. The men moved to the edge of the roof, each carrying a torch and a burlap sack full of grenades.
“Captain,” said the statue.
“Not now,” he replied.
“Captain, why can’t you tell us who we are?”
Forger turned and looked at her.
“Because I don’t know.”
“Do any of you know?”
“Then it is as I had feared.”
“Help us fight!” said Forger. “They killed your people before. Are you going to let them kill us?”
She looked at the mass of monsters racing toward the palace.
“Fighting is not my purpose.”
Forger said nothing more. He lit a grenade and threw it.
In the entry of the throne room, three files of soldiers waited in formation, their muskets loaded.
“Wait for it,” said Captain Wood. “Take aim!” They held their weapons to their shoulders. “Fire!”
A gale of lead pelted the monsters in the face, and a number of them fell to the ground, rolling and sliding. The first of the grenades detonated immediately thereafter, flinging a few of them into the air like fur coats whipped in the wind.
The three files who had just fired moved out of the way, and three more files moved forward to replace them.
More Howlers fell, but they were coming too quickly. Wood shook his head. They would not be able to get off another volley.
“Close the doors!”
The men fell back inside and pushed the doors shut, securing them with thick wooden planks. As the men who had fired were reloading, the doors shook from the force of the Howlers crashing against them – but they held. The beasts’ pained shrieks and the sound of their claws raking against the wood echoed through the main hall. Beyond Wood and the men at the door, the hall was full of wide-eyed soldiers.
Dawnman was still sitting in his throne. He had begun to wonder where his personal goddess had gone, but then he saw her returning from the spiral stairs to his right. With his thoughts returning to his men’s plight, he turned to the male statue.
“Those statues along the walls…”
“You said they will respond to my commands?”
He nodded approvingly. He then stood.
The statues snapped to attention.
“Defend these men from the Howlers!”
The statues moved to take up positions at the various doors and openings around the main hall. The soldiers at the main door backed away, maintaining a respectful distance from the giants.
After a few moments, they heard the cackles and shrieks of Howlers that had gotten into the wings of the palace. The soldiers formed battle lines at the corridor and staircase openings, taking aim from behind the massive stone bodies of the guards.
They came in a wave. The soldiers got a round off, but then the Howlers collided with the guards. From that point, it was mostly claws, swords, and bayonets. In an instant, all of the glory and refinement often attached to warfare disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving only that which composes the bulk of the matter: a bloody mess of dirt and pain, punctuated with poorly calculated hacking and writhing.
Upon discharging his pistol, Wood immediately dropped it and took his saber in both hands. He slashed one Howler across the face, another across the back, severing its spine, and another across the throat. Screams and yelps were everywhere, and dead and dying bodies were piling up quickly.
Wood got pinned between two Howler bodies – one of which was not quite dead. As he fought to extricate himself, he got a claw across the forearm, which opened up a nasty wound. In retaliation, he put his saber to the creature’s neck. Outside, he could still hear the sound of grenades detonating. This made his ears ring to the point that the Howlers’ screams became mere background noise.
Dawnman looked on in amazement. The guards were fighting ferociously. Using their tremendous weight and strength, they were either skewering the Howlers on their halberds or crushing them against the walls and floor. Having such a force at his command, he truly felt powerful. All the time, he sat sedately on his throne, a loaded pistol in each hand and his naked saber across his knees.
When the sun began to color the horizon, the Howlers – the ones still alive, at least – were long gone, running back to whatever dens they had awoken from. In the throne room, piles of carcasses had accumulated in front of each entry. They had gotten so high that they had actually begun to serve as defensive structures, forcing the attackers to progressively squeeze through a smaller space as they came.
Unfortunately, many of the bodies that had stacked up did not belong to Howlers.
Forger watched over his men as they dug in the dirt in front of the palace. Not having an unpaved surface anywhere close, they had pulled up the pavement stone to dig there. Thankfully, the ground underneath was relatively soft, and work would be done soon enough. As they dug, the bodies of their fallen comrades were being lined up nearby. Forger looked again into the empty eyes of one of the soldiers there. This man had fallen in a battle far from his home – on the other side of the world – and for what? His nation was no safer. No false ideology had been defeated. He had died in a battle for control of a nation that had died years before.
One of Forger’s lieutenants stood before him and saluted.
“We believe we have them all accounted for, Captain.”
“Two hundred twelve.”
Forger nodded. “Thank you. Carry on.”
Forger turned and walked toward the palace doors. Something inside him had changed. It was not rage: it was something more fundamental than that. His pace was quick, but calm. Walking toward the doors, he passed Captain River, but said nothing to him or to any of the soldiers. He took the stairs two at a time and marched directly toward the throne. As he walked through the hall, the smell of blood and filthy fur filled his nostrils. He stopped in front of the admiral, who was still sitting in his place, his crown on his head. As with everyone else, his eyes were dark and bloodshot from weariness. The effect on his visage was different, however: it gave him a wild look.
“Admiral,” said Forger, saluting.
“How is the burial work coming, Captain?”
“It’s progressing quickly, Admiral. I have come to ask that you order the men to pack up, that we might leave.”
Forger heard someone approaching from behind. He turned to look. Captain River and some of the other officers stood there, listening intently. They had apparently been expecting this.
“I don’t think we will be leaving soon, Captain,” said Forger.
“Admiral, we just lost hundreds of men. The Howlers will most likely return tonight, and -”
“And we still have all of the guards!” Dawnman gestured to the great stone men who had now returned to their places along the walls. “They will protect us. I intend to go back into the pyramids. The guards there will heed my commands. I am the Emperor. I will bring them here to help defend the palace.”
“Admiral, we have already gathered enough gold to make this trip worthwhile. It’s time to go home.”
Dawnman stood. “Are you challenging my authority, Captain?”
“If you continue to issue reckless orders, Admiral, that is what I intend to do, yes.”
Dawnman smiled. He looked at Forger, Rivers, and the others. Wood was now coming as well.
“So this is a mutiny, is it?” he asked. “Do you know the punishment for mutiny?”
“Admiral -” began Forger.
“I told you, Captain Forger: Call me ‘Emperor’.”
“I will not, Admiral.”
Dawnman looked into Forger’s eyes, and scorn filled his face.
“Guards!” shouted Dawnman. The stone warriors snapped to attention. “Kill Captain Forger and all who stand with him!”
The palace guards immediately began to close on the throne from every direction. Drawing his saber, Forger lunged forward – and ran the blade through Dawnman’s heart. Dawnman tensed, and his eyes and mouth went wide. He then slouched in his seat as the pall of death fell over him. Forger reached down, took the crown, and placed it on his head.
“I am the Emperor now!” said Forger. “Stand down!”
The guards froze.
“Return to your places!”
They complied, and the officers who had gathered in the center of the hall relaxed. Taking the crown from his head, Forger tossed it into Dawnman’s lap. Turning, he addressed the other officers.
“I am taking command of this expedition. We leave as soon as possible. Mobilize the men.”
The officers saluted and raced in various directions to expedite things. Wood stood for a moment, his eyes fixed on Forger.
“Dawnman died in the battle last night,” said Wood.
Forger nodded. “Come,” he said, “there’s much to be done.”
“Emperor!” came a voice from behind. Forger turned to see two statues watching him intently.
“Emperor, what do you wish of us?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“Emperor!” Her voice was full of urgency. “Could you tell us who we are?”
Forger stopped. He turned and looked at them for a moment, thinking.
“I’ll tell you that,” he said, “when I know who I am.”